Maria Sharapova - The Championships - Wimbledon 2011: Day Twelve

In the first half of 2011, the Williams sisters played three total tournaments, Henin retired in January, and Clijsters nearly vanished after March.  So what went right for the WTA so far this year?  Quite a bit, in fact.  A new champion rose, an old champion rose again, another champion brought 100 million new fans to the sport, and two more champions fought a duel to the death (well, almost).  We reflect upon the most memorable and meaningful matches from a first half that compensated in drama for what it lacked in star power.

5) Sharapova d. Dulgheru (Miami):  At first glance, many readers might have imagined that this often excruciating ordeal would land on the less glamorous list below.  In the longest match of Sharapova’s career, she overcame 17 double faults, 76 unforced errors, an ankle injury late in the third set, and an unexpectedly determined opponent.  With a return to the top 10 at stake, however, the three-time major champion refused to let those obstacles halt her as her lasers grazed the line in the final moments of both tiebreaks.  Earlier in her comeback, Sharapova had lost these tortuous affairs to players like Oudin, Zheng, or Kirilenko.  This time, her renewed steeliness propelled her to victory on a night when almost nothing else could.  While Sharapova delivered much more stunning tennis later in the spring, arduous, hard-earned triumphs like these played a more important role in fueling her revival than any of her emphatic routs.  Many players can win when they strike their strokes to perfection, but few can win simply by refusing to accept any other outcome.

4) Venus d. Date-Krumm (Wimbledon) / Lisicki d. Li (Wimbledon):  Often criticized for eccentric scheduling decisions, Wimbledon redeemed itself in part by placing both of these second-round thrillers on Centre Court.  Opposing competitors from different generations, the two epics featured scintillating contrasts of styles between the artful angles of Date-Krumm, the baseline resilience of Li, and the massive first-strike firepower of their conquerors.  While the Goliaths eventually slew the Davids, these suspenseful matches illustrated the surge in quality experienced by the WTA this year, which has led to early-round encounters more entertaining than ever.  In probably her final Wimbledon, the Japanese star nearly unhinged the five-time champion with her inspired improvisations and pinpoint placement.  Even more noteworthy was the courage of Lisicki, whom few would have blamed for conceding to the Roland Garros champion late in the third set.  Proving herself as tough as one of the tour’s toughest veterans, however, the German did not flinch on the sport’s grandest stage.  While a former Wimbledon champion won one of these matches, a future Wimbledon champion may have won the other.

3) Kvitova d. Azarenka (Madrid):  Dwarfed by the Wimbledon title that followed two months later, Kvitova’s performance in this Premier Mandatory final underscored her precocious competitive determination.  No less remarkable than her blazing winners was her refusal to retreat when her ambitious shot-making misfired.  Seizing her fate in her own hands, Kvitova separated herself from the fragile debutantes who have flirted with WTA breakthroughs before faltering.  This match also separated her from one of her most talented potential rivals, a distinction confirmed in the Wimbledon semifinal.  Nevertheless, Azarenka delivered more than enough blows to the Czech on both occasions to suggest that an engaging rivalry might develop between these feisty aggressors.  After witnessing so many recent WTA finals lost by nerves or unfocused play, one relished the sight of a title tilt decided (largely) by timely excellence rather than untimely frailty.

2) Li d. Wozniacki (Australian Open):  The stakes stood high for both players in a semifinal that often felt more like a final, pitting Li’s attempt to become the first Chinese Slam finalist against Wozniacki’s attempt to legitimize her #1 ranking at a major.  Throughout most of its three grueling sets, both players held firm under the pressure as they traded weapons from two of the tour’s most balanced groundstroke arsenals.  As with Kvitova, this preliminary triumph may fade in the glow of what Li accomplished at the following major, but none of her Roland Garros wins so clearly showcased her ability to guard her baseline while unleashing strategic flashes of offense.  Averting a match point with a flamboyant forehand winner, she ground down the WTA’s ultimate grinder by patiently constructing her opportunities.  Although this defeat exposed Wozniacki’s notorious lack of firepower, it also demonstrated the degree of sustained physical and mental effort required to conquer her on a hard court.  Her decision to diverge from the winner-wild mentality in women’s tennis may or may not lead to major titles, but her baseline fortress often separates contenders from pretenders and diversifies a somewhat stylistically homogenous WTA.

1) Schiavone d. Kuznetsova (Australian Open):  In the first month of 2011, this clash between two Slam champions set the standard extremely high for the season that followed.  Less notable for the quality of the strokes than the quality of the competition, the 284-minute women’s sequel to Isner-Mahut proved infinitely more fascinating to watch than its predecessor.  Representative of their nations were the contrasting styles of the Russian and the Italian, one of whom pummeled forehands with reckless abandon while the other parried these blows with elegant slices and unexpected assaults on the forecourt.  Those who dismissively labeled Schiavone a “one-Slam wonder” should have gained greater respect for her following this demonstration of indefatigable will.  Meanwhile, the often fallible Kuznetsova earned honor in defeat by battling with undimmed vigor even as match point after match points slipped past.  Like the other matches in this list, moreover, “4:44” was won rather than lost—not a statement that often applies to these scoreboard-straining marathons.

From the zenith to the abyss…we recall the most unforgettably forgettable performances of the first half.

3) Wozniacki d. Kuznetsova (Dubai):  Among the reasons why Kvitova’s Madrid triumph appeared above was woeful WTA finals like this desert debacle.  After an eye-opening Australian Open highlighted not only by “4:44” but by a victory over Henin, Kuznetsova seemed poised to reverse her 2010 futility when she reached the final at the next significant tournament.  But then the feckless Sveta of old resurfaced in a final once again, holding serve only once and winning less than a third of her first-serve points.  Her avalanche of errors failed to put any consistent pressure on the world #1, who looked as bored as the audience.  Since that limp performance, Kuznetsova has shown scant sign of reclaiming her January momentum, which now appears less breakthrough than anomaly.

2) Azarenka d. Zvonareva (Miami):  Another Russian known for frailty at crucial moments, Zvonareva had advanced a considerable distance towards shedding that reputation in 2010.  Although she has distinctly surpassed Kuznetsova this season, her inner sense of inferiority has resurfaced on occasions such as this dismal semifinal in which she won only three games.  Against an opponent with less experience, less prestigious accomplishments, and a parallel tendency for implosions, the Russian had little excuse for a disappearing act that presaged her limp exits at the next two majors.  Despite clinging to her top-5 status, Zvonareva rarely carries herself with the poise of an elite contender.  If she doesn’t believe in herself, why should anyone else?

1) Safina d. Stosur (Indian Wells):  A lovely sight after her months of adversity, Safina’s smile nearly obscured the farcically horrific tennis that unfolded here—but not quite.  Second serves sank into the bottom of the net or flew into the doubles alley, drop shots bounced before reaching the net, and overhead attempts threatened Larry Ellison’s safety in the first row behind the baseline.  While one could understand and even empathize with the Russian’s anxiety, one’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion over Stosur’s incompetence on the most routine shots against an opponent seemingly eager to assist in her own demise.  Able to win just two games from Sharapova with a similar display a round later, Safina somehow managed to win two sets from a top-10 foe. Or rather Stosur somehow managed to lose two sets, for rarely has an elite player snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with greater determination.  If the 2010 Wimbledon and US Open finalist has regressed this year, the 2010 Roland Garros finalist has sped well ahead of her down the highway to oblivion.

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